Written and Directed by: Tony Gilroy
Starring: George Clooney, Tom Wilkinson, Syndey Pollack, Tilda Swinton
Rated: R for language including some sexual dialogue.
Parental Notes: This is not a movie aimed at kids. Most preteens and teens will probably be fine with the violence and sexual content, but they may not be captivated by the story.
Such meticulous care has been taken with everything from the writing to the casting to the performances of “Michael Clayton” that the film is nearly flawless. A quiet, brooding character study which happens to have the plot of a legal thriller, it may be a bit of a slow burn for those looking for a quick action flick. But if you’re tired of the slapdash flicks Hollywood has been turning out lately, this will not disappoint you.
Michael Clayton (George Clooney, “Ocean’s Thirteen”) is a “fixer” for a massive law firm. While some see him as a miracle worker, his true nature is, in his own words, that of a janitor. He tidies up the messes clients of his powerful firm have made, like leaving the site of a hit-and-run. He misses his courtroom days, but is far too good at his job to be allowed to do anything else for the firm. Clooney is accumulating gravitas as he ages and loses some of his pretty-boy good looks, and his slightly jowly handsomeness serves him well in the role. Clayton is old and tired, and running low on options. He has a gambling problem, both with back-room poker games and with people: he gambled that opening a bar with his brother was a good idea and would give him something to fall back on after his law career ended, and he lost. Now, even after the contents of the bar have been auctioned off, he owes a shady character $75,000.
When one of the best lawyers at his firm strips off his clothes during a deposition and runs naked through the snow, Clayton is called in to settle him down and soothe the ruffled feathers of the client. The lawyer is his good friend Arthur (Tom Wilkinson, “The Last Kiss”), who has bipolar disorder and has stopped taking his pills. He is, he informs Clayton, “Shiva, the God of Death.” Wilkinson shines in this role of a man who is vibrantly sure he is doing the right thing and hoping that by doing so, he can turn his life around and do good for a change.
Arthur was the architect of a massive effort to defend biochemical company U-North in a massive class-action suit which alleges that one of their pesticides is deadly to the farmers who use it. Things do not look terribly good for U-North. The deeper Clayton looks into Arthur’s case, the more disturbing things he turns up and the less inclined he is to do his janitorial duty and sweep it all under the rug.
Standing in his way is the new chief legal executive for U-North, Karen Crowder (Tilda Swinton, “Chronicles of Narnia”). She is a good lawyer, but a little too determined to win, even in the face of her company’s wrongdoing. Crowder gradually slips more and more across the line of what’s right until she is making decisions and giving orders that clearly terrify her. Swinton was fabulous in “Narnia” as the thoroughly wicked White Witch, but here she turns in a more subtle performance as a woman who bit by bit begins to wobble as she walks the tightrope between just doing her job and being actively evil.
This is the directing debut of star screenwriter Tony Gilroy (the three Bourne movies, “Proof of Life,” “Armageddon”), who also wrote the screenplay. Gilroy’s taste in directing runs more to the quiet and subtle, which suits his script perfectly. He’s aided by cinematographer Robert Elswit (“Syriana,” “Good Night, and Good Luck,” “Magnolia”), whose shots are moody without being pretentious. Everything in this film is carefully crafted to reward audience members who pay attention.
“Michael Clayton” is a thoughtful and well-crafted. It’s a top-notch film made by a top-notch team, and not to be missed by anyone who likes movies with character development and well-crafted scripts.